The Dee Estuary

P1080856 (2)

On  recent visit to the Wirral, staying there for a couple of nights in our campervan, we enjoyed walking on the Dee Estuary beaches. Tide out, plenty of space for our dog to run, sniff and explore, and a few birds about too, it was all very pleasant. Across the water from the Wirral side are lower Welsh hills and small towns, such a Flint.

The estuary leaves the boats moored there high and dry, then buoyed up again as the tide comes in. Low tide reveals rocks, mud, pools and the remains of maybe piers? Maybe breakwaters? Maybe the back bone of a buried dinosaur?

The sound of oystercatchers peep-peeping is unmistakable, but I need binoculars to find them as they potter about feeding on the beach. The warbling cry of a nearby curlew draws my attention as it obligingly stands still for a photo.

 

RSPB Deeside is located further up along the coast on the English side, and it’s a good place for birds, as is Parkgate, with its grassy, silted up seashore, promenade and ice cream parlours. Hen Harriers, Marsh Harriers, Short-eared owls, Merlins and Kestrels can be seen here, but patience is required, especially in winter months when it can get very cold taking part in one of the regular Raptor Watch events.

P1080832At the mouth of the estuary is Hilbre Island, which you can get to across the sands at low tide. A tide table is essential for this activity!  Further round the coast on the English side, is Liverpool, and nearby is Crosby Beach with the cast iron bodies of artist Antony Gormley forever looking out to sea, continually being covered then revealed by the rising and ebbing tides.

Beaks and bills

On a recent visit to Martin Mere Wetlands Centre I noticed how many colourful and spectacularly shaped beaks and bills there were on the birds there.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There is no difference in the meaning of beak or bill, although a sharp hooked end – like those of an eagle for example – might be referred to more often as a beak.

Having taken several photos of beaks and bills, here are a few, which I think/hope I’ve correctly ID’d. Comments are my personal responses and are not very ornithological! You’ll probably be able to work out which is which in the slideshow.

1) Spoonbill – weird and wonderful  – a build in spoon to dig around and find food with

2) Cape Barren Goose – pleasing colour combination of grey and yellow

3) Common Merganser – small pointy beak and stunning punky head

4) Black Swan – dramatic; I remember seeing my first one in Tasmania

5) Flamingo – wow! a large beak like a shovel

6) Red Crested pochard – intense combination of rich colours

Sweet Nothings

 

P1080793

This pair of Southern Screamers were spotted billing and cooing like a pair of love birds on a recent visit to Martin Mere Wetland Centre in Lancashire. No social distancing for them, but now the reserve is open again, visitor numbers are limited and you have to book in advance. Once through the entrance and on to the reserve, all is well-managed with plenty of hand washing/sanitising points and comfortable distancing from other visitors.

The Screamers are natives of South America, and have a distinctive screaming call, loud enough to make your hair stand on end. They’re fairly large and turkey-like, with partly webbed feet, hollow bones and air sacs beneath the skin, which would all help in getting them off the ground and being able to stay there once in the air.

They have large, thick legs, light red in colour and just looking at these legs and pondering on them being hollow is – for me at least – quite fascinating. They mate for life and this pair were clearly being sensitive and gentle, interacting as they sat side by side.

I gather there is nothing of note in their plumage to help distinguish between male and female, but my fantasy on seeing them was that the male had the white dog collar (Rev. S. Screamer?) and the female had the fluffy pale grey hairdo.

She also preened and groomed his head, making me wonder if he might be just a tiny bit henpecked…..see the look on his face!

Waterlilies

P1080729

The first waterlilies of the season have just opened to a rousing fanfare from me of “They’re here! The first this year.”

Our pond is always a source of interest and delight and has been even more so during these lockdown weeks, when we’ve had more time to appreciate our outdoor space and sit soaking up the sunshine and ambience in the garden. We are lucky, I know that.

Birdsong has become more audible with less traffic and almost no flights from and into Manchester airport, so empty skies have brought louder birdsong. The resident blackbird on our patch sits on nearby roof- and tree-tops singing beautifully, interspersing his song with a 4-note signature which he repeats quite often – and I reply, giving him something to cock his head to one side over and briefly ponder on before he’s off on the next riff of fabulous sounds.

But back to the waterlilies, which are a joy to behold and observe as they bud, then open and often attract visiting hoverflies, which alight on their petals.

Black vulture, Turkey vulture

P1080446This pair of black vultures were hanging around on the trees by Buffalo Bayou in Houston while we were there, taking a walk one sunny morning. It’s not a particularly good shot with out of focus leaves blurring it, but it offers a clear enough view of the scaly bald head of this bird.

I find vultures fascinating. They’re fairly ugly and they have grim associations with carnivorous tastes for dead animal matter. I didn’t at first like their scaly heads until I learned that they’re bald and without feathers so that the bird can insert its head into the carcass and feed without getting head fearthers messed up. Quite a neat trick of nature really, and rather practical in a gruesome kind of way.

There are always plenty of black vultures around in Huston, and they can be seen wheeling overhead in gangs or, as we noticed on this visit, hanging out on the banks of the bayou. We once counted 21 of them on a dual carriageway road tussling and vying for a morsel of the dead squirrel which several of them were having a tug of war over. Those not joining in were watching from nearby rooftops. It was reminiscent of a scene from Hitchcock’s film The Birds.

Turkey vultures are similar but significantly different. They also have bald scaly heads, but theirs are red, not black. They are larger, their wings have white patches underneath (not visible in this photo because taken against the light) and they’re more likely to be seen in open countryside. They soar overhead seeking out carrion and have a keen sense of smell.

P1080539

When we visited Brazos Bend State Park, a group of them were involved in seeking out something hidden on the ground, repeatedly wheeling around returning to the same spot. Nature being nature. I took this shot of one of them and its red head is just about visible. Its finger-like wing feathers make it easy to ID. Trying to get a shot of them on the wing is always a bit of challenge though.

Since I’ve been back in the locked-down UK, I’ve been doing a fair bit of on-line singing with my choir and think I must have been doing too many vocal warm ups because as I typed the title  “Black vulture, Turkey vulture” I started saying it as a tongue twister – like “Red leather, Yellow leather”…….oh dear!